Raising the Green Bar

Green Building Consultant, Michal Vital at work in her office. Photo by Orit Jorno

Green Building Consultant, Michal Vital, has been working in the field in Israel since its beginning with the first courses for teaching the Green Building Standard starting in 2011. With a background in weaving and interior design she started being involved with green building projects in 2003.  A globally published project, a clinic for a Bedouin village in the Negev built with earth and straw, brought her attention and continuous work designing homes with natural materials. These projects she describes, harked back to the days her Engineer grandfather used to tell her about, where in the beginning of the state, building was fun, happy and collaborative.

Climate emergency

As time progressed, she could see that the projects were remaining more on the fringe of the mainstream. Knowing that the climate emergency was and is becoming ever more urgent, and inspired by David Eisenberg of DCAT’s  (Development Center for Appropriate Technology) visit to Israel, the transition to focusing on supporting and implementing a green building code became of the utmost importance to her. The goal was for the message and method to have as wide an impact as possible. Now, she leads a team of consultants for over three hundred projects throughout the country providing Green Building consulting to various scales of building projects, from residential to educational, public and private. Without an emphasis on natural building materials she says her work is less happy and fun, however, she feels that the impact she is making is greater and more necessary.

Green Standard

Up until now, the Green Building Standard in Israel was voluntary, with a group of municipalities adopting the standard as part of city planning regulations only. Outside of this city requirement, voluntary adherence to the standard was scarce. This past week, the Minister of the Interior signed into law the requirement for new buildings to be planned and built according to SI 5281: Israel’s Green Building Standard. From January 2022 all new projects, throughout the entire country, that are greater than 60 meters squared, not including private houses, will be required to conform to the Standard.

Behind the new requirement is the aim for Israel to stand by its commitments to the Paris Agreement of 2016. Here, the 195 signatory countries agreed to determine targets, plan and regularly report on efforts to mitigate carbon emissions, therefore reducing the risks and impacts of climate change.  Each country has the freedom to determine its own targets, however, the agreement puts an emphasis on striving to exceed those targets in order to build a climate-resilient future for our ever-urbanizing civilization, with economies being structured around this mutual goal to make it a global feasibility.

The Standard is so important in manifesting this commitment because it sets a milestone that trickles down to every building project, now becoming accountable for the energy used and environmental implication of extracting the resources and making the materials available on site as well as the long term energy and resource requirements for the life of a building and its urban and ecological context.

At least ten years of work have gone into creating and implementing the Standard by the Israel Green Building Council, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Forum 15 (a group of pioneering municipalities that took it upon themselves to require the Standard in their cities before it has been signed into national law), as well as many others. The Standard’s global counterparts such as the LEED, BREEAM and WELL systems go back even further to the early 90s. A substantial part of the SI 5281 is based upon the foundations of its predecessors.  Each Standard encourages the improvement and adaptation to local context and climate of the next.

Carbon reduction

The SI 5281, like LEED is based upon a points system that gives grades to various elements of a building’s commitment to cutting carbon emissions. (Buildings and construction alone, account for almost 40% of the world’s carbon emissions.) With a maximum of 100 points and a minimum of 55 points to reach the basic standard, developers and builders have a somewhat flexible range of possibilities to achieve those points.

The nine topics are 1-Energy, 2-Site, 3-Water, 4-Materials, 5-Health and Wellbeing, 6-Waste, 7- Transport, 8-Management, 9-Innovation.

Integrated Design approach

What is exciting about the law coming into effect is that now, Green Building consultants will be sought out at the very conception of the project, instead of only at the end of planning to check that the boxes have been ticked. This means that a project has the potential to integrate green building concepts in every aspect of its planning. In addition, since energy efficiency and streamlined planning is emphasized at the outset of a project, the monetary benefits for the developer will be very worthwhile even if the initial investment will be minimally higher. (The increased investment can be as little as an additional 1% with a higher and faster selling rate.)

Orientation, climate analysis, sun and wind, materials and systems choices, thermal mass calculations, water management and proposals for effective insulation and passive techniques are some of the topics that a Green Building consultant will advise on to decrease energy use (by 20-40%) and to increase comfort and well-being.

Strive to do more

Some critics of the standard worry that the requirements may not be enough. With so much emphasis on points and numbers, the common sense of the matter may be at risk of being evaded. Something as simple as requiring a developer to install mosquito nets so that windows will be opened at night instead of air conditioners turned on can make a large difference to a passive energy system of a building but can be sidestepped by loopholes in the points system. Not everything can be put down to carbon calculations and economic considerations. Using natural materials and promoting ecological diversity are a large component of creating a more climate resilient and sustainable future, but because it has not been calculated in numbers it receives less attention. Where the standard may fail, is that processes that may be deemed ‘less harmful’ to the environment are still not actually ‘friendly’ to the environment.

Another concern of Michal and other veterans of the profession in Israel is that when the law comes fully into effect there still will not be enough green professionals trained to a high enough standard to fulfill the expected need for consultants. In her vision, in addition to a widespread and high standard training of professionals, even the non-professional will get the chance to be educated and familiar with green design principles.

The new Harish skyline in 2019. As new home-buyers, Michal and her colleagues were able to convince a developer and the city to add certain green principles to the planning. With more widespread education and knowledge of these principles, many more home-buyers and builders could make a significant impact on the green planning of our built environment.

Bringing it home

At present, private houses are exempt from the current standard, but by no means should they be left out. Michal has been developing a course for homeowners to take their own initiative to build according to green building principles. This is a positive step towards the individual’s contribution to caring for the environment and to increasing their comfort and well-being as well as decreasing maintenance and energy costs.

Climate awareness and green building can no longer be a choice left up to the individual or only for niche experts or connoisseurs. It must be at the forefront of every building process. Everybody can start to make a real quantitative and qualitative impact. The more people know, the more they want to know, the more that they request and require of their governments to encourage and sustain, the more that is impacted. The SI 5281 Standard is designed to be a work in progress where the bar is being continuously raised and new minimums will continue to be set. The ideal is for it to be a circular feedback system where we are all responsible and of which we are all part. Eventually, when we are all participating, the fun, joy and collaboration will surely be able to return.

A link to Michal’s Green Building Course can be found at: https://michalvital.ravpage.co.il/greenbuildingcourse

Noémie Cristóbal Lumbroso, Architect and Green Building Consultant, contributed to this article. Based in Tel Aviv, with a French and Spanish background and more than 10 years experience in the field, Noémie believes in the dialogue between Architecture and Sustainable Design.

About the Author
Miriam Waltz made aliyah via London, Basel and New York. She is an architect that has worked in world renowned firms on various continents. Currently she resides in Tel Aviv and is principal founder of Studio Itouf. The studio designs spaces, environments and habitats that promote wellbeing, belonging, authenticity, autonomy and collaboration between mineral, vegetable, animal and human. Photo by Yelena Kvetny
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